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  • Writer's pictureClementine de la Poer Beresford, MA

A Brief History of Florence Cathedral (Duomo di Firenze)

What is Florence Cathedral?

Florence Cathedral is a vast cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower, the flower being the Florentine lily) that’s topped with Brunelleschi’s iconic dome.

Florence Cathedral

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Florence Cathedral History

The city’s striking cathedral, topped by Filippo Brunelleschi’s extraordinary and ingenious red-brick dome, is Florence’s most iconic landmark. For many, the Duomo – as it’s otherwise known – is a symbol of the city itself. Although the first stone was laid on the 8th of September 1296 by Cardinal Valeriana, the first papal legate ever to be sent to Florence, it was not until 1436 that the cathedral was consecrated and not until the 19th century that it was finally completed.

Constructed on the site of the city’s second cathedral, the Duomo was begun by the 13th-century architect, Arnolfo di Cambio. After Arnolfo’s death, his plans continued to shape its architectural development, although the scale of the build was vastly increased. In 1331, the Arte della Lana, the guild of wool merchants, assumed responsibility for the project, and in 1334 it appointed Giotto as Master of the Works of the Cathedral. Giotto’s major accomplishment was the design of the freestanding Campanile (the bell tower), which rises 85 metres into the air and is decorated on its exterior by a surface of coloured marbles – white from Carrara, green from Prato and red from Siena – that dance together in a geometric pattern. By his death, Giotto had finished the lower floor of the bell tower, and it would be completed by his successors Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti.

By 1380, the Duomo’s nave (the area intended for the congregation) was finished and all that was left was the colossal task of executing Arnolfo’s designs for the great dome. When the guild of wool merchants announced a competition for the erection of the dome, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi put their hats into the ring. The story goes that Brunelleschi won the commission without even presenting his plans, suggesting that whoever succeeded in making an egg stand upon a flat tabletop should be awarded the contract. When Ghiberti, along with the other competitors, had all failed, Brunelleschi smashed the egg into two parts, putting one half of the shell on top of the other, causing it to stand upright. Brunelleschi’s dome, like his egg, was a dome within a dome that could be built without any supporting structure and for its design he took inspiration from the ancient Pantheon in Rome. Octagonal in shape, it was and continues to be the largest masonry vault in the world. The decision to build the dome without external flying buttresses (or supports) marked a move away from Gothic architecture towards the ideals of the Renaissance.

Brunelleschi Dome

Peter K Burian, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The respect and admiration Brunelleschi acquired from the Florentine people through his design and execution of the dome is manifest in the fact that upon his death he was given the prestigious burial place of the cathedral’s crypt. Although Brunelleschi had put forward the idea of covering the inside of the dome with gold, upon his death it was whitewashed. It was not until the 16th century that Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned Giorgio Vasari to beautify it. Vasari, in consultation with the Benedictine monk and scholar Vincenzo Borghini, came up with a design of concentric circles that would depict the Last Judgement. Vasari lived long enough to begin the enormous undertaking, finishing sections including the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse, but it was eventually completed by Federico Zuccari and the project was unveiled in 1579. The cathedral was only finished in 1887, when Emilio de Fabris executed his design for a new neo-Gothic façade, which incorporated the white, green and red marbles of Giotto’s bell tower.

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